President Umaru Yar'Adua's death on May 5th ends the crisis over the presidential succession in Nigeria that began when he was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia in November 2009. Goodluck Jonathan, who the National Assembly had extra-constitutionally designated acting president in February, is now Nigeria's president, removing any uncertainty about possible legal challenges to his authority.
Nigerian politics will now focus on the selection of Jonathan's vice president, and the ruling People's Democratic Party's (PDP) candidate for the upcoming 2011 presidential elections. The selection of a vice president can only now happen because so long as Jonathan had been acting president, he continued to serve as vice president as well. The selection will be carried out in the National Assembly--not by popular election. The political classes in Nigeria will be deeply involved because of the widespread expectation that whoever is selected as vice president will be the PDP presidential candidate in 2011.
Under Nigeria's informal and unwritten power-sharing arrangement between the predominately Christian South and the Muslim North, it is the North's turn to hold the presidency. From that perspective, many in the North view Jonathan's presidency as only an interim arrangement, required by Yar'adua's illness and death. They will anticipate that the new vice president will be a Muslim from the North.
However, Jonathan is now the constitutional president of Nigeria and will be able to draw on the immense powers of incumbency. The possibility of Jonathan's candidacy is widely discussed in Nigeria. Even as acting president, Jonathan had started asserting his authority, firing Yar'Adua's cabinet and appointing his own, forming a powerful presidential advisory council and visiting the United States. Jonathan has also retained the position of minister of power for himself. If he is able to increase the availability of power to ordinary consumers, he will strengthen his case for the presidency.
In the past, Nigerian presidential politics have avoided direct competition between the Christian South and the Muslim North. In 2007, all three leading presidential candidates were Northern Muslims. A 2011 electoral campaign between a Northern Muslim vice president and Southern Christian president would be a new and serious challenge to Nigeria's political stability.
President Jonathan has articulated two major goals--free, fair and credible elections in 2011 and full implementation of the amnesty program for Delta fighters. In addition, President Jonathan faces continued ethnic and religious violence in the Middle Belt. It remains to be seen whether the political class have the will to move forward President Jonathan's agenda and hold credible elections in 2011.